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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 70-93

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Victorian Antigone:
Classicism and Women's Education in America, 1840-1900

Caroline Winterer
San José State University

IN THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY, ANTIGONE SUDDENLY SURFACED AS AN IMPORTANT rhetorical figure in America. The heroine of Sophocles' eponymous Greek tragedy, Antigone was a dutiful sister who defied the state to attend to her family and religious conscience. After 1840, she began to appear in American scholarship and college courses, general interest and women's periodicals, novels, short stories, and poetry, reaching an apotheosis in the early twentieth century, when Antigone became by far the most frequently performed classical play on American college campuses. Antigone formed part of a culture of classicism that had permeated American politics, art, and letters since the eighteenth century. A century later Americans still drew on a rich fund of female classical imagery: Sappho the lyric poetess, Minerva the icon of American liberty, Helen the dangerous seductress. The career of Antigone in Victorian America, by contrast, illuminates the moment at which Americans reimagined the function of classicism in women's education, and in turn women's preparation for citizenship.

Antigone's career between 1840 and 1900 spans the decades during which American women achieved for the first time the kind of education that men had long deemed requisite for participation in public affairs: a knowledge of classical antiquity. Since the Renaissance, classical learning had buttressed European public life, instructing men in such arts of statesmanship as history, rhetoric, and eloquence. Largely exiled from this classical education, women had been [End Page 70] judged deficient in a major requirement of citizenship. This changed dramatically in the second half of the nineteenth century as the number of women attending college increased from 21 percent of collegians in 1870 to 40 percent by 1910. 1 These women attended the new women's and coeducational colleges, which offered a classical education that aspired to and sometimes equaled the kind offered at elite men's colleges. Victorian American women, in other words, stormed an ancient male intellectual and political bastion through equity in classical education. Antigone's apotheosis occurred at the height of this massive shift in the content of women's educations. But her career also traces an important irony in the feminization of classicism. She rose to popularity just as classicism itself--always construed as having particularly masculine, political qualities--became a vehicle less for public action than for internal self-perfection, for private struggles of emotion and conscience, for a retreat from public engagement.

The Origins of Antigone: The Rise of Ancient Greece in America

The play Antigone, written in the fifth century B.C., was one of the three so-called Theban plays in which Sophocles spins out the fate of the doomed house of Oedipus, king of Thebes. The incestuous union of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta had produced four children: the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, and the sisters Ismene and Antigone. After Oedipus leaves Thebes in horror of his own crime, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices are instructed to share the throne peacefully with their uncle (Jocasta's brother), Creon. Instead, the three men fight bitterly for many years. Eventually, the two brothers are killed in their attempts to reclaim the throne of Thebes, and Creon becomes king. The action of Antigone begins at this point. Creon has refused the right of burial to Polyneices, whom he regards as a traitor to Thebes. Among the ancient Greeks, burial of the dead was an important religious rite, allowing the deed to pass into the world beyond. Against Creon's wishes, and against the advice of her sister Ismene, Antigone symbolically buries her brother, casting sand on his exposed body. Creon's men discover her, and she is walled alive in a rocky tomb where she kills herself. Horrified by the result of the king's edict, Creon's wife (Eurydice) and his son Antigone's betrothed (Haemon) also kill themselves. Creon is filled with anguish and remorse. [End Page 71]

Like other classical myths, the Antigone story was a...


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